A NEW DEAL — IN SILHOUETTE
Of course you must have seen them. Either in your own house or in that of your grandparents or in the window of an antique shop or in books about the American Revolution. For a century and a half ago, silhouettes were as common as snapshots are today. Everybody, high and low, rich and poor, had himself silhouetted, and such mighty personages as George Washington and Marie Antoinette and Frederick the Great and Benjamin Franklin were silhouetted until they must have been as sick and tired of the own shadow-pictures as George Gershwin must be of his “Symphony in Blue.“
The process was exceedingly simple. Everybody could make silhouettes. All he needed was a willing subject, a white screen, a candle, a piece of black paper and a pair of sharp scissors. The rest depended upon his native or acquired ability to catch the shadow of his victim and reduce it to the right proportions. for all I know, the craze for these fascinating shadow pictures may return tomorrow. For the stage is all set for a return of M. de Silhouette. No, he was not some sort of prehistoric photographer, a vague ancestor of that famous M. de Daguerre, who gave us the daguerreotype and modern photography. M. de Silhouette was a financier of great repute and the New Dealer of the reign of King Louis XV of France.
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This is the way that amiable nobleman turned himself into one of the immortals. For when all is said and done, what a greater fame can a man achieve than to make his name part of the current vernacular?
It was during the middle of the Eighteenth Century, France, having been most thoroughly ruined by the dynastic wars of the Great King Louis (whose royal mansions in Versailles were so recently repaired by the generosity of our own Mr. Rockefeller), was about as bankrupt as any nation can be without ceasing to function altogether.
Even in Versailles, where nobody ever learned or forgot anything, a few of the brighter spirits discovered that 1,000,000,000 times zero still makes zero. Evidently, it was time that something be done and be done right away.
Looking around for a bright young man to swing on the dangerous trapeze of finance, the choice fell upon a certain Etienne de Silhouette, a native of Limoges, a former secretary of the Duke of Orleans and member of the royal commission that had settled the Franco-British difficulties in Acadia in 1749.
Young Etienne had been an industrious student of British financial affairs and had translated a good many English books on finance into French. In short, a sort of brain-trust all by himself.
In March, 1759, he was put at the head of the finances of France with unlimited power to do whatever he pleased, provided he go His Majesty’s kingdom out of its desperate difficulties. This appointment was made at the suggestion of the king’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour. The dear lady was not famous for her morals. But she had a good brain. If she and de Silhouette had been given free rein, they might, between them, have saved France from the Revolution.
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But of course the poor New Dealer could accomplish absolutely nothing unless first of all he tackled the problem of the privileged classes. He did his best. He tried to reduce all pensions of all the hangers-on of the court. He proposed to tax the lands of the nobles. He suggested that everybody spend just about half of what he had done thus far, and that there be an end to the wasteful luxury of a court which benefitted nobody but the Versailles pastry-cooks, the Paris jewelers and the light ladies of both cities.
The idea struck the court as something so unusually funny that all of fashionable society began to do things “a la Silhouette,” which was a polite way for doing them “on the cheap.” Thus far, everybody had had his portrait painted by a regular painter. But now of course they could no longer afford to do so, and they had their pictures cut out of a piece of black paper. They had it done “on the cheap” or “a la Silhouette.”
And when the joke had lasted long enough, they booted poor Etienne de Silhouette out of his high office, and the good old times came back right away, and the New Deal went into discard, and Etienne de Silhouette died as the forgotten man, and Marie Antoinette and her boy and girl friends had a perfectly swell time laughing their pretty heads off over this pedantic bore with his everlasting howls about he coming disasters and calamities.
And then they all went to jail and made lovely little silhouettes of each other’s pretty little necks.
And then they had their pretty little necks cut off by the guillotine.
And that is the story of the New Deal of the year 1749 and of Monsieur Etienne de Silhouette.
Rochester Evening Journal (Rochester, New York) Dec 19, 1934
Meet the Commentator
Van Loon wrote The Story of Mankind, a wonderful history book geared toward children:
Read online or download a free copy at this google link.